Leaders: you’ve probably wrestled with a problem recently. It’s likely you’re wrestling with at least one right now. Problems keep us up at night. Problems make leadership hard and necessary. Solving problems (not just philosophically, but workably) is what leaders do.
Here’s the problem with problems: they often revolve around people. And people problems are among the most difficult to resolve. Most leaders can attest to this: give us a dilemma that doesn’t require tiptoeing around anyone’s personality, finessing anyone’s ego, or interacting with anyone stubborn, and we’ll solve it.
People problems are rarely that simple. Consequently we often allow them to discourage, delay, or even paralyze us. We assume that because people problems can be so unpredictable the way we handle them must be unpredictable as well.
Not so! There’s a process for dealing with people problems that can remove at least some of our anxiety and self-doubt. Here’s what it looks like (props to Henry Cloud and his excellent book Necessary Endings for much of this):
- The first time an issue shows up, it's a problem. Avoid the temptation to ignore it or over-analyze it. Address it quickly and clearly, agree on a solution, and move on.
- Once a problem has been addressed, if it shows up again it's a problem* – the * means “keep an eye on this”. Address it quickly and clearly, reiterate the previously agreed upon solution, and move on… with a note to self to watch a little more closely.
- A problem that’s been addressed several times isn’t a problem anymore: it’s a pattern. This is a transition many leaders miss. Patterns should be treated differently than problems (because they’re much more destructive). Respectfully let the person know you’re no longer interested in discussing the problem; instead, you want to discuss a pattern. Make sure you spell out what could happen if the pattern is not resolved (i.e. introduce consequences).
- A pattern that persists after it’s been clearly pointed out and had consequences attached to it isn’t a pattern anymore: it’s a predisposition. You’re dealing with the way someone is fundamentally wired – which means it’s unlikely they will change (not impossible, just unlikely). This is another important transition leaders miss. Stop trying to reason with the person involved. Something concrete must be adjusted with their roles or responsibilities while they work on the predisposition. You simply can’t afford to expend massive energy coaching, convincing, or cajoling someone who has already allowed multiple opportunities to change slip through their fingers. Put a time limit on when change must occur and start preparing yourself (and them) for a transition if it doesn’t.
Why is this so important? Because problems that aren’t addressed become patterns… patterns that aren’t addressed become predispositions… and predispositions bring down teams. But when leaders have the courage to face problems (even people ones) head on, we can avoid that kind of fallout.